It is difficult to keep up with the ever-mutating scientific consensus on masks. In the early days of the pandemic, White House COVID-19 adviser Anthony Fauci told the public not to bother with them before abruptly adopting a wear-a-mask-any-mask stance. After vaccines became widely available last winter and spring, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said the vaccinated no longer needed to wear them, and then reversed course after determining that the delta variant was much more contagious than the original strain. And the CDC's support for mask mandates in schools rests upon a study that has now been substantially debunked.
Enter Leana Wen, a medical analyst for CNN and former president of Planned Parenthood. Wen is one of cable news' most vigorous supporters of coercive COVID-19 measures: She previously suggested that the government should prohibit unvaccinated people from traveling (and, perhaps, from leaving their homes at all). During a CNN appearance on Monday, Wen made the provocative statement that the commonly used cloth masks are essentially useless at preventing the spread of the omicron variant.
"Don't wear a cloth mask," she said. "Cloth masks are little more than facial decorations. There's no place for them in light of omicron."
— Townhall.com (@townhallcom) December 21, 2021
Huh? As Townhall's Spencer Brown points out, Wen's view of the science contradicts the guidance from the White House and the CDC, which holds that cloth masks are good enough. In fact, the CDC has specifically instructed people not to wear N95 masks.
Wen is a supporter of mandates, so perhaps she thinks the higher quality masks should be required in some settings. Yet if she's right, it means the masks that the overwhelming majority of people are wearing in order to comply with mandates—in public schools, on public transportation, in many workplaces, gyms, and even social settings—aren't doing any good. They represent another element of pandemic hygiene theater: a public health requirement that makes people feel safer without offering them much actual protection.
Against the initial strain, some studies found that mask wearing helped to decrease the spread of COVID-19; others were more mixed. Delta and omicron, of course, are significantly more infectious, and thus Wen's contention that the commonly-used masks aren't doing very much is probably correct. This should be an argument for getting rid of all mask mandates, not making the mandates stricter. The government checking the quality of people's masks would be an absurd overreach; the mandate is already difficult to enforce, as people constantly (and understandably) pull their masks beneath their noses in order to make it easier to breathe.
It would be better for the public health bureaucracy to admit that we cannot mask our way out of the pandemic. At this point, COVID-19 is too contagious to be effectively constrained by the tools at the government's disposal. It would take transforming into a China-style totalitarian state: This is a path the U.S. government is constitutionally, morally, and practically prevented from taking.
It's time to end mask mandates in schools, on airplanes, and in other settings where they are required. Rational policy makers should conclude that these mandates' failure weakens their legitimacy.